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The 19th century saw many changes: Napoleon and his Empire, two Restorations of the Bourbon princes and then Empire again with Napoleon III


The previously dynamic economy of Aquitaine was hit hard, first of all by the blockades and requisitions of the Napoleonic Wars, then by growing English domination of maritime trade, and lastly because the industrial revolution did not gain a firm foothold in the region.


But things were not all so bad for the people of Aquitaine! The people of the Landes were benefiting from the transformation of the region’s marshlands into one of the largest forests in Europe, and the hub of the local economy. In Perigord, they were playing their role in the construction of the railroads (Bordeaux-Paris 1848). Basques and Béarnais, meanwhile, were seeing the arrival of the first tourists coming to enjoy the benefits of spa towns and seaside resorts, led by Eugenie – the wife of Napoleon III.


[Thanks to the Aquitaine Tourist Office]

Below is a brief history of the area we travel on the 7 Day Perigord, the 6 Day Cele and the 12 Day 3 Rivers Trips. A large part of the interest in these trips is our proximity to history.


Our 12 Day Ardeche & Tarn and the 8 Day Belgium Ardennes trips are more closely attuned to the natural history of the regions.

A Brief History of Aquitaine









The Vézère Valley in the Dordogne is quite simply considered as the cradle of humanity, as homo erectus settled here 400,000 years ago! The painted caves, shelters and sites tell us the story of the daily life of prehistoric man.


In the 3rd century BC their Gaul tribes mixed with the peoples of Aquitaine. The Petrucores founded Périgueux, and the Bituriges Vivisques founded Bordeaux. Together they occupied South West France – from the Loire to the Rhone and the Mediterranean.


In 56 BC, Rome conquered the region. The Romans settled without too much conflict – indeed they brought with them the benefits of their civilisation. The roads were constructed, town plans traced, and rich villas built. The first vines were planted, too – "biturica" in Latin.

Aquitaine suffered the Vandal and Visigoth invasions, the sieges of the armies of Clovis (6th century) to build a free kingdom, and then the battles to keep it in the face of more independence-minded peoples such as the Vascons (or Gascons) in the Pyrenees.

In 719, the Pyrenees were crossed by the Muslim armies, who got as far as Poitiers before being stopped by the army of Charles Martel in 732. Under the Carolingians and Charlemagne, a more closely united Aquitaine began to take shape.


The period also saw the emergence of the Catholic Church from the 4th century onwards, and many of those born in Aquitaine at the time will have taken part in building bishops’ palaces, monasteries and abbeys. Places of worship such as churches and basilicas were also constructed for the people: Saint Front in Périgueux, Saint Pierre and Sainte Eulalie in Bordeaux. This development continued with the construction of a series of routes pointing pilgrims along their way to Compostella.


In the 10th and 11th centuries, the region was divided once again, this time between the Duchies of Aquitaine and Gascony, before being reunited within a vast, single State forming the dowry of Eleanor, Duchess of Aquitaine, newly divorced from King Louis VII of France. She went on to marry Henry II Plantagenet, future King of England, in 1152.

Then came the era of the Anglo-Gascon princes (12th-15th centuries) as the struggle for possession of Aquitaine – often referred to as Guyenne, by phonetic alteration – opposed the crowns of England and France during the Hundred Years War (1334-1453). The war came to a close with the victory of the French at Castillon-la-Bataille, on 17 July 1453.


These were hard times for the people of Aquitaine: armies left a wake of destruction, epidemic and famine behind them as in-fighting between powerful feudal lords intensified. Many of the region’s castles date from this stormy era: Beynac in Perigord, Roquetaillade in the Gironde, Bonaguil in the Lot-et-Garonne and Montaner in Béarn, to name but a few.


But the war was not waged continuously and the period was also marked by a certain form of prosperity. It saw the development of a growing urban population in fortified new towns, referred to as bastides, and also the spread of the French language in the region’s towns and castles. It was also a time of growing trade and saw the first successes of Bordeaux wines. No fewer than 100,000 casks (or 85 million litres!) of wine were exported to England in 1308.

The Kingdom of France still suffered from instability, however, and it was to combat this that the Parliament of Bordeaux was created in 1462. One of its members was Michel de Montaigne, the famous author of the Essays. This did not prevent one part of the region attracting much attention, however.


The Kingdom of Navarre, under the Albret family, was not only a centre of Protestantism in the region, but also the home of King Henri IV of France. Born a Protestant and married initially to Catholic Marguerite of Valois, Henri of Navarre was to convert to Catholicism in 1589 to accede to the throne (he is quoted as having said “Paris is well worth a Mass”) and bring an end to the wars of religion between Catholics and Protestants with the Edict of Nantes (1598).


And what were the people of Aquitaine up to in the 17th century? If they belonged to the nobility, they may have been lucky enough to attend the wedding of King Louis XIII and Anne of Austria in 1615, or that of their son Louis XIV and Marie-Thérèse, the Spanish Infanta, in Saint-Jean-de-Luz in 1660.


For those of more modest origins, they will certainly have been taking part in the violent popular uprisings against royal taxation. Aquitaine has always had a strongly independent streak, making it a very fertile breeding-ground for such revolts.

Among the region’s more notable inhabitants in later times, the traders of Bordeaux and its region were among the most fortunate, with the 18th century seeing the port city reach its peak and establish itself lastingly as the leading city in Aquitaine. Its magnificent architecture from the period bears testimony to the city’s golden age.


The traders imported exotic goods (coffee, chocolate, cotton) and exported the region’s produce to the Hanseatic ports, to America and to Russia. And there were even those who were convinced of the virtues of equality by their compatriot Montesquieu and may not have taken part in the notorious slave trade.


These were times of such new ideas, giving rise to the French Revolution. After early disturbances, Aquitaine quietened down fairly quickly From this time on, the region seems to have preferred to watch the major events of history from afar.